How do we contextualize the unexplainable? How do we arrange an understanding between the simplicity of some images, perhaps even the undefinable beauty, and the horror of what happened in those locations many years ago? First published in its original French in 2011, Georges Didi-Huberman’s
, (carefully and decisively translated by Samuel E. Martin), attempts not to understand and explain the Holocaust as it was brutally played out at Auschwitz-Birkenau, so much as place the realities of those times against the apparent banality and quiet peace of a location so literally and figuratively haunted by millions of innocent murdered people. In its solitude rests a staggering and profound truth: “…what is a horizon at Birkenau? What is a horizon in this place conceived to shatter all hope?” The author’s photographs and texts speak to each other in painfully simple codes. If the latter can provide a literal manifestation of horizons on this landscape of death, can the former really match the “truth” of those images?
is a deceptively simple text in content. It’s a little more than average adult male palm-sized, 136 pp., and 19 photographs of various scenes at and around Auschwitz-Birkenau. The photographs are accompanied by reflections, observations, attempts to make connections between the reality of what the images represented in the reality of 2011 and the ghosts that cannot be removed. The author, a Paris-based philosopher and art historian, took home pieces of bark from a tree at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Very carefully, Didi-Huberman sets forth his premise in the opening reflection of what the bark represented:
“Three strips of time… a fragment of memory… a fragment of the present… a fragment of desire…”
They’re alive, these strips, like skin peeled from trees grown on the location, trees that could not be vanquished. We learn that the very name of Birkenau came from Birch trees. These trees grew on barren, desolate, lands. They were pioneer trees, survivors, romantic yet also (from Antiquity through the Middle Ages) “a medium for scripts and figures.” In effect, it was perfectly understandable that some sort of truth could be gleaned from what these relics displayed.
uses these pieces from trees only as a launching point for something deeper, a means to draw links between the horrifying past and the commercialized present. The Auschwitz barracks had been turned into a commercial stand, a way not to financially exploit the situation so much as identify the location no longer as a place of barbarism but rather a place of culture. The “museumification” of the site took the power back from the barbarians and landed it definitively in the established world of historians. Consider this passage at the end of the section in question:
“Culture is not the cherry on the cake of history… it remains ever a place of conflict…”
In other words, the author’s pure mission here seems to be one where he sees a need to bear witness to the fact that the development of culture can be a crude, commodified, established process where history is severely placed in a palpable context, especially something like the Holocaust. We can take what he calls here some “haphazard photographs” as a way to establish our presence, to bear witness to the ghosts of our ancestors, but that art will never take the place of the facts. In his reflection of a photograph he’d taken of a bird that had perched itself on the ground between barbed wire from the 1940s and newly-installed wire, Didi-Huberman notes:
“…I do have the distinct feeling that the bird landed between two terribly disjointed temporalities, two very different arrangements of the same parcel of space and history.”
Those in charge of preserving the site so that the world today will never forget what happened there had no choice but to install and reinforce wire. Did it trivialize the remains of the site as it was originally maintained? How far should today go in order to adjust yesterday to modern expectations? Didi-Huberman and the rest of us spend time pondering such ideas, but this bird is brazen, free, unencumbered by the idea of sacred ground, laughing in the face of history.
The running thread seems to be about the stubborn insistence of memory. Didi-Huberman writes: “…what can you say when Auschwitz must be forgotten at its very site in order to constitute itself as a fictitious place devoted to Auschwitz’s memory?” That seems to be the struggle that will never end, the notion that at its root memory can never reach any level of “truth”. At Birkenau, he argues that our obligation is to view the site as would an archaeologist. We need to see the human devastation in all that vegetation. “The washing of the rains… has brought countless splinters of bone back up the surface…” In such situations as those, obviously, the caretakers have no option but to add more earth to the site, to cover but never eliminate. “To look at things from an archaeological point of view is to compare what we see in the present, which has survived, with what we know to have disappeared.”
There will always be the question of whether or not it is essential to simplify in order to transmit any version of the “truth”. Is it our obligation to sanitize in order to educate? Didi-Huberman notes that in a Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, “…the documents are presented in a spirit of scrupulous exactness…” The author spends time considering the bravery of one covert photographer at Birkenau who had to “…hide in order to see…” He notes that this visionary strength that led to these images of mass cremation is at odds with the principles of the way Memorials operate. He reached his truth by hiding, slipping through the cracks, desperately seeking his own truth in all the madness and not paying attention to any sense of contemporary propriety.
For Didi-Huberman, the issue was also that our memories never allowed us to “…appeal to our capacity to provide detailed recollections.” He photographs the floor of crematorium V at Birkenau and reflects that “…archaeologists have had to be summoned to interrogate the floors, to scour the depths, to excavate the remnants of history.” For him, it’s about interrogating “the layers of time” and setting all the stable objects into context. What does the bark tell him? “What will my child think when he comes across those remnants after my death?” Why did he go? What did he learn?
He had lost grandparents at Auschwitz, but
isn’t solely about them. In effect,
is about carefully and methodically peeling away the layers of pain not to expose the scars to the glaring truth of light but rather to start the process of putting ourselves back together, of reconnecting strips of memory with their origins, of learning to live in peace with dual existences in the savage terrains of barbarism and the tamed lands of culture. Learning that there’s often not much difference between the two can be the hardest truth to swallow.
The Human Devastation in Auschwitz-Birkenau's Vegetation